NASA’s Osiris-Rex asteroid sample-return mission passed its critical design review, clearing the way for prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver to start putting the robotic spacecraft together, the company said in an April 10 press release. 

Lockheed is building the Osiris-Rex spacecraft and its sample-collection-and-return system. Lockheed will also operate the mission, which is scheduled for launch in September 2016 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. Osiris-Rex is to rendezvous with its target asteroid, Bennu, in 2018, collect at least a 60-gram sample, and return the specimen to Earth in 2023. 

The mission’s principal investigator is Dante Lauretta, a professor in the Planetary Sciences Department at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The university will provide the Osiris-Rex Camera Suite: a collection of three cameras designed to help the spacecraft spot Bennu, a lumpy spheroid about 500 meters in diameter, and maintain a safe distance during the descent to the space rock’s surface for sample collection. 

Osiris-Rex was selected in 2010 as the fourth in NASA’s New Horizons series of competitively awarded, medium-size planetary science missions. Development costs are capped at $800 million in 2010 dollars. The Osiris-Rex program is not responsible for the mission’s $183.5 million launch bill, or the Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer student experiment provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The MIT instrument and the rocket bring the total mission tab up to about $1 billion, Lauretta has said. 

Osiris-Rex, NASA has said, could inform the Asteroid Redirect Mission the agency is contemplating, in which a different robotic craft would be launched by the end of the decade on a mission to nudge a small asteroid into lunar orbit. Astronauts would then rendezvous with the captured boulder by 2025 under the proposed mission.